AskDefine | Define sociology

Dictionary Definition

sociology n : the study and classification of human societies

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  1. The study of society, human social interaction, and the rules and processes that bind and separate people not only as individuals, but as members of associations, groups, and institutions.


study of society, human social interactions, etc.

Extensive Definition

Sociology (from Latin: socius, "companion"; and the suffix -ology, "the study of", from Greek λόγος, lógos, "knowledge" ) is the scientific or systematic study of society, including patterns of social relationships, social interaction, and culture. Areas studied in sociology can range from the analysis of brief contacts between anonymous individuals on the street to the study of global social interaction. Numerous fields within the discipline concentrate on how and why people are organized in society, either as individuals or as members of associations, groups, and institutions. Sociology is considered a branch of social science.
Sociological research provides educators, planners, lawmakers, administrators, developers, business leaders, and people interested in resolving social problems and formulating public policy with rationales for the actions that they take.


Early theorists' approach to sociology, led by Comte, was to treat it in much the same manner as natural science, applying the same methods and methodology used in the natural sciences to study social phenomena. The emphasis on empiricism and the scientific method sought to provide an incontestable foundation for any sociological claims or findings, and to distinguish sociology from less empirical fields such as philosophy. This methodological approach, called positivism assumes that the only authentic knowledge is scientific knowledge, and that such knowledge can only come from positive affirmation of theories through strict scientific method.
One push away from positivism was philosophical and political, such as in the dialectical materialism based on Marx' theories. A second push away from scientific positivism was cultural, becoming sociological. As early as the 19th century, positivist and naturalist approaches to studying social life were questioned by scientists like Wilhelm Dilthey and Heinrich Rickert, who argued that the natural world differs from the social world because of unique aspects of human society such as meanings, symbols, rules, norms, and values. These elements of society inform human cultures. This view was further developed by Max Weber, who introduced antipositivism (humanistic sociology). According to this view, which is closely related to antinaturalism, sociological research must concentrate on humans' cultural values (see also: French Pragmatism).

Twentieth century developments

In the early 20th century, sociology expanded in the United States, including developments in both macrosociology interested in evolution of societies and microsociology. Based on the pragmatic social psychology of George Herbert Mead, Herbert Blumer and others (later Chicago school) inspired sociologists developed symbolic interactionism.
In Europe, in the Interwar period, sociology generally was both attacked by increasingly totalitarian governments and rejected by conservative universities. At the same time, originally in Austria and later in the U.S., Alfred Schütz developed social phenomenology (which would later inform social constructionism). Also, members of the Frankfurt school (most of whom moved to the U.S. to escape Nazi persecution) developed critical theory, integrating critical, idealistic and historical materialistic elements of the dialectical philosophies of Hegel and Marx with the insights of Freud, Max Weber (in theory, if not always in name) and others. In the 1930s in the U.S., Talcott Parsons developed structural-functional theory which integrated the study of social order and "objective" aspects of macro and micro structural factors.
Since World War II, sociology has been revived in Europe, although during the Stalin and Mao eras it was suppressed in the communist countries. In the mid-20th century, there was a general (but not universal) trend for US-American sociology to be more scientific in nature, due partly to the prominent influence at that time of structural functionalism. Sociologists developed new types of quantitative and qualitative research methods. In the second half of the 20th century, sociological research has been increasingly employed as a tool by governments and businesses. Parallel with the rise of various social movements in the 1960s, theories emphasizing social struggle, including conflict theory (which sought to counter structural functionalism) and neomarxist theories, began to receive more attention.
In the late 20th century, some sociologists embraced postmodern and poststructuralist philosophies. Increasingly, many sociologists have used qualitative and ethnographic methods and become critical of the positivism in some social scientific approaches. Much like cultural studies, some contemporary sociological studies have been influenced by the cultural changes of the 1960s, 20th century Continental philosophy, literary studies, and interpretivism. Others have maintained more objective empirical perspectives, such as by articulating neofunctionalism, social psychology, and rational choice theory. Others began to debate the nature of globalization and the changing nature of social institutions. These developments have led some to reconceptualize basic sociological categories and theories. For instance, inspired by the thought of Michel Foucault, power may be studied as dispersed throughout society in a wide variety of disciplinary cultural practices. In political sociology, the power of the nation state may be seen as transforming due to the globalization of trade (and cultural exchanges) and the expanding influence of international organizations (Nash 2000:1-4).
However, the positivist tradition is still alive and influential in sociology. In the U.S., the most commonly cited journals, including the American Journal of Sociology and American Sociological Review, primarily publish research in the positivist tradition. There is also a minor revival for a more independent, empirical sociology in the spirit of C Wright Mills, and his studies of the Power Elite in the USA, according to Stanley Aronowitz.
Social network analysis is an example of a new paradigm in this tradition which can go beyond the traditional micro vs. macro or agency vs. structure debates. The influence of social network analysis is pervasive in many sociological subfields such as economic sociology (see the work of J. Clyde Mitchell, Harrison White, or Mark Granovetter for example), organizational behavior, historical sociology, political sociology, or the sociology of education.
Throughout the development of sociology, controversies have raged about how to emphasize or integrate concerns with subjectivity, objectivity, intersubjectivity and practicality in theory and research. The extent to which sociology may be characterized as a 'science' has remained an area of considerable debate, which has addressed basic ontological and epistemological philosophical questions. One outcome of such disputes has been the ongoing formation of multidimensional theories of society, such as the continuing development of various types of critical theory. Another outcome has been the formation of public sociology, which emphasizes the usefulness of sociological analysis to various social groups.

Scope and topics of sociology

Sociologists study society and social action by examining the groups and social institutions people form, as well as various social, religious, political, and business organizations. They also study the social interactions of people and groups, trace the origin and growth of social processes, and analyze the influence of group activities on individual members and vice versa. The results of sociological research aid educators, lawmakers, administrators, and others interested in resolving social problems, working for social justice and formulating public policy.
Sociologists research macro-structures and processes that organize or affect society, such as, but is not limited to race or ethnicity, gender, globalization, and social class stratification. They study institutions such as the family and social processes that represent deviation from, or the breakdown of, social structures, including crime and divorce. And, they research micro-processes such as interpersonal interactions and the socialization of individuals. Sociologists are also concerned with the effect of social traits such as sex, age, or race on a person’s daily life.
Most sociologists work in one or more specialties, such as, but is not limited to social stratification, social organization, and social mobility; ethnic and race relations; education; family; social psychology; urban, rural, political, and comparative sociology; sex roles and relationships; demography; gerontology; criminology; and sociological practice. In short, sociologists study the many dimensions of society.
Although sociology was informed by Comte's conviction that sociology would sit at the apex of all the sciences, sociology today is identified as one of many social sciences (such as anthropology, economics, political science, psychology, etc.). At times, sociology does integrate the insights of various disciplines, as do other social sciences. Initially, the discipline was concerned particularly with the organization of complex industrial societies. In the past, anthropology had methods that would have helped to study cultural issues in a "more acute" way than sociologists. Recent sociologists, taking cues from anthropologists, have noted the "Western emphasis" of the field. In response, sociology departments around the world are encouraging the study of many cultures and multi-national studies.

Sociological research

The basic goal of sociological research is to understand the social world in its many forms. Quantitative methods and qualitative methods are two main types of sociological research methods. Sociologists often use quantitative methods -- such as social statistics or network analysis - to investigate the structure of a social process or describe patterns in social relationships. Sociologists also often use qualitative methods - such as focused interviews, group discussions and ethnographic methods - to investigate social processes. Sociologists also use applied research methods such as evaluation research and assessment.

Methods of sociological inquiry

Sociologists use many types of social research methods, including:
  • Archival research - Facts or factual evidences from a variety of records are compiled.
  • Content Analysis - The contents of books and mass media are analyzed to study how people communicate and the messages people talk or write about.
  • Historical Method - This involves a continuous and systematic search for the information and knowledge about past events related to the life of a person, a group, society, or the world.
  • Experimental Research - The researcher isolates a single social process or social phenomena and uses the data to either confirm or construct social theory. The experiment is the best method for testing theory due to its extremely high internal validity. Participants, or subjects, are randomly assigned to various conditions or 'treatments', and then analyses are made between groups. Randomization allows the researcher to be sure that the treatment is having the effect on group differences and not some other extraneous factor.
  • Survey Research - The researcher obtains data from interviews, questionnaires, or similar feedback from a set of persons chosen (including random selection) to represent a particular population of interest. Survey items may be open-ended or closed-ended.
  • Life History - This is the study of the personal life trajectories. Through a series of interviews, the researcher can probe into the decisive moments in their life or the various influences on their life.
  • Longitudinal study - This is an extensive examination of a specific group over a long period of time.
  • Observation - Using data from the senses, one records information about social phenomenon or behavior. Qualitative research relies heavily on observation, although it is in a highly disciplined form.
  • Participant Observation - As the name implies, the researcher goes to the field (usually a community), lives with the people for some time, and participates in their activities in order to know and feel their culture.
The choice of a method in part often depends on the researcher's epistemological approach to research. For example, those researchers who are concerned with statistical generalizability to a population will most likely administer structured interviews with a survey questionnaire to a carefully selected probability sample. By contrast, those sociologists, especially ethnographers, who are more interested in having a full contextual understanding of group members lives will choose participant observation, observation, and open-ended interviews. Many studies combine several of these methodologies.
The relative merits of these research methodologies is a topic of much professional debate among practicing sociologists.

Combining research methods

In practice, some sociologists combine different research methods and approaches, since different methods produce different types of findings that correspond to different aspects of societies. For example, the quantitative methods may help describe social patterns, while qualitative approaches could help to understand how individuals understand those patterns.
An example of using multiple types of research methods is in the study of the Internet. The Internet is of interest for sociologists in various ways: as a tool for research, for example, in using online questionnaires instead of paper ones, as a discussion platform, and as a research topic. Sociology of the Internet in the last sense includes analysis of online communities (e.g. as found in newsgroups), virtual communities and virtual worlds, organizational change catalyzed through new media like the Internet, and social change at-large in the transformation from industrial to informational society (or to information society). Online communities can be studied statistically through network analysis and at the same time interpreted qualitatively, such as though virtual ethnography. Social change can be studied through statistical demographics or through the interpretation of changing messages and symbols in online media studies.

Sociology and other social sciences

Sociology shares deep ties with a wide array of other disciplines that also deal with the study of society. The fields of economics, psychology, and anthropology have influenced and have been influenced by sociology and these fields share a great amount of history and common research interests.
Today sociology and the other sciences are better contrasted according to methodology rather than objects of study. Additionally, unlike sociology, psychology and anthropology have forensic components within these disciplines that deal with anatomy and other types of laboratory research.
Sociobiology is the study of how social behavior and organization has been influenced by evolution and other biological processes. The field blends sociology with a number other sciences, such as anthropology, biology, zoology, and others. Although the field once rapidly gained acceptance, it has remained highly controversial within the sociological academy. Sociologists often criticize the study for depending too greatly on the effects of genes in defining behavior. Sociobiologists often respond by citing a complex relationship between nature and nurture.
Sociology is also widely used in management science, especially in the field of organizational behavior.
Related theories, methods and fields of inquiry include:

See also



  • Aby, Stephen H. Sociology: A Guide to Reference and Information Sources, 3rd edn. Littleton, CO, Libraries Unlimited Inc., 2005, ISBN 1-56308-947-5
  • Calhoun, Craig (ed) Dictionary of the Social Sciences, Oxford University Press, 2002, ISBN-10: 0195123719, ISBN-13: 978-0195123715
  • Macionis, John J. 2004. Sociology (10th Edition). Prentice Hall, ISBN 0-13-184918-2
  • Nash, Kate. 2000. Contemporary Political Sociology: Globalization, Politics, and Power. Blackwell Publishers.
  • Scott, John & Marshall, Gordon (eds) A Dictionary of Sociology (3rd Ed). Oxford University Press, 2005, ISBN-10: 0198609868, ISBN-13: 978-0198609865

Further reading

Other resources

sociology in Afrikaans: Sosiologie
sociology in Amharic: የባሕል ጥናት (ሶሲዮሎጂ)
sociology in Arabic: علم الاجتماع
sociology in Aragonese: Soziolochía
sociology in Asturian: Socioloxía
sociology in Azerbaijani: Sosiologiya
sociology in Min Nan: Siā-hoē-ha̍k
sociology in Belarusian (Tarashkevitsa): Сацыялёгія
sociology in Bosnian: Sociologija
sociology in Bulgarian: Социология
sociology in Catalan: Sociologia
sociology in Cebuano: Sosyolohiya
sociology in Czech: Sociologie
sociology in Corsican: Sociologia
sociology in Welsh: Cymdeithaseg
sociology in Danish: Sociologi
sociology in German: Soziologie
sociology in Estonian: Sotsioloogia
sociology in Modern Greek (1453-): Κοινωνιολογία
sociology in Spanish: Sociología
sociology in Esperanto: Sociologio
sociology in Basque: Soziologia
sociology in Persian: جامعه‌شناسی
sociology in French: Sociologie
sociology in Western Frisian: Sosjology
sociology in Friulian: Sociologjie
sociology in Irish: Socheolaíocht
sociology in Galician: Socioloxía
sociology in Korean: 사회학
sociology in Croatian: Sociologija
sociology in Ido: Sociologio
sociology in Indonesian: Sosiologi
sociology in Interlingua (International Auxiliary Language Association): Sociologia
sociology in Ossetian: Социологи
sociology in Xhosa: ISosioloji
sociology in Icelandic: Félagsfræði
sociology in Italian: Sociologia
sociology in Hebrew: סוציולוגיה
sociology in Javanese: Sosiologi
sociology in Georgian: სოციოლოგია
sociology in Kirghiz: Социология
sociology in Kurdish: Civaknasî
sociology in Ladino: Sosiolojiya
sociology in Latin: Sociologia
sociology in Latvian: Socioloģija
sociology in Luxembourgish: Soziologie
sociology in Lithuanian: Sociologija
sociology in Limburgan: Sociologie
sociology in Hungarian: Szociológia
sociology in Macedonian: Социологија
sociology in Maltese: Soċjoloġija
sociology in Malay (macrolanguage): Sosiologi
sociology in Dutch: Sociologie
sociology in Japanese: 社会学
sociology in Norwegian: Sosiologi
sociology in Norwegian Nynorsk: Sosiologi
sociology in Narom: Sociologie
sociology in Occitan (post 1500): Sociologia
sociology in Pushto: ټولنپوهنه
sociology in Low German: Soziologie
sociology in Polish: Socjologia
sociology in Portuguese: Sociologia
sociology in Romanian: Sociologie
sociology in Russian: Социология
sociology in Sardinian: Sotziologia
sociology in Albanian: Sociologjia
sociology in Sicilian: Socioluggìa
sociology in Simple English: Sociology
sociology in Slovak: Sociológia
sociology in Slovenian: Sociologija
sociology in Serbian: Социологија
sociology in Serbo-Croatian: Sociologija
sociology in Sundanese: Sosiologi
sociology in Finnish: Sosiologia
sociology in Swedish: Sociologi
sociology in Tamil: சமூகவியல்
sociology in Thai: สังคมวิทยา
sociology in Vietnamese: Xã hội học
sociology in Tok Pisin: Sosiolosi
sociology in Turkish: Toplum bilimi
sociology in Ukrainian: Соціологія
sociology in Urdu: معاشریات
sociology in Venetian: Sociołogia
sociology in Yiddish: סאציאלאגיע
sociology in Zeeuws: Sociologie
sociology in Samogitian: Suocialuogėjė
sociology in Chinese: 社会学
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